Tag Archives: The Culture of Excess

Santa, Our National Patron Saint!!

A patron saint is defined as a mythical and revered guardian figure of a people or country. Who, I ask, is the patron saint of the United States? George Washington? Since he is a relatively recent historical figure, he is subsequently disqualified – we understand Washington and others like him (Jefferson and Franklin) to be founding fathers. Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyon, or John Henry? We’re getting closer, but most American kids would recognize only one of the three, at best. How about Uncle Sam? He looks the part in red, white, and blue – but what more do we know of him than his finger pointed beckoning citizens to national service? To be a national patron saint, all – especially children – need to understand the details of the candidate’s story. Santa is the only one who qualifies; he, unquestionably, is the American national patron saint in this current day of commerce, materialism, and consumerism.

Santa – unequivocally an American invention – has an interesting history. It starts with St. Nicholas (270-343), a Christian bishop who lived in Myra – modern-day Turkey. He had a reputation for favoring children; he brought them justice and gave them gifts.

jalbm st. nicholas

A depiction of St. Nicholas of Myra. Notice the bishop’s mitre, the shepherd’s staff, the cross, and the religious vestments.

The date of his death, December 6, became his festival day. For centuries, various places in Europe revered the saint and practiced gift giving on his festival day. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves if we make a direct unbroken link from St. Nick’s December festival day and its practice of gift giving to the Christmas of today. More so, there’s a deeper connection between today’s gift giving and the ancient rhythms of indulgence (sometimes to the point of excess) during the winter months.

The winter solstice, December 21 – the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere – has a deep and long cultural history. The celebration of greens and lights at the solstice, as is well-known, predates Christianity by millennia. The early church, not yet consolidated in doctrine and calendar, celebrated the birth of Christ on different dates throughout the year according to local custom. Constantine corporatized the church in 325, bringing conformity to its doctrine. Pope Julius brought consolidation to its calendar in 350 and proclaimed December 25 to be the festival day of the birth of Christ. The church understood its position to be strong enough to compete with Saturnalia and other pagan festivals celebrating the rebirth of the sun, covering over them, as it were, with the birth of the Son.

Historian Stephen Nissenbaum (The Battle for Christmas, Knopf, 1997) astutely observes that “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.” Absolutely correct.

Protestantism’s penchant to not revere saints meant that St. Nick didn’t make the trip to the New World neither with the Pilgrims, the Puritans, nor northern European immigrants (Nissenbaum says that American Christmas as an early 19th century Dutch import is an “invented tradition”). As a matter of fact, Christmas celebrations in early America had more in common with the ancient celebrations related to the rhythms of harvest and the solstice than they did with church teaching. In the Northern Hemisphere, the weeks preceding and following the solstice (what we moderns call November, December, and January) traditionally have been the time of gathering in harvests, slaughtering for fresh meat, and enjoying the products of fermentation, beer and wine. We Northern Hemisphere moderns who purchase fresh apples from Chile in May might have difficulty understanding this ancient rhythm, since we are able to procure most whatever we want any time during the year. Even so, let me ask you to entertain a few questions: Do you have a tendency to put on a few pounds over the winter holiday season? Have you ever signed up for a gym membership in January? December was and is the time for excess – eating, drinking, giving, celebrating, leisure – a time to enjoy the labors of year-end and a time for misrule.

Misrule, historically, was a moment of social inversion when the wealthy and powerful deferred to their dependents and poorer neighbors. Practiced in Europe and early America, misrule gave social permission – during a few days in December and January – for the poor to enter the homes of the well-to-do demanding to be served with food, drink, and money as if the peasants themselves were the well-to-do. Misrule consisted of rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mocking of established authority, and demands made upon the rich by the working class. Now bring us some figgy pudding . . . We won’t go until we get some – and bring it right here! The Puritans of New England – yes, it’s true – banned the celebration of Christmas in the mid-1600s not because they had issues with the legendary December birth of Jesus, but because misrule had a tendency to get out of hand. So bring it right here!

One of the unwritten rules of misrule, however, was the continuation of a social bargain. The peasants, satisfied with the brief turning of the tables during misrule, were to offer their goodwill and deference to the wealthy and powerful for the rest of the year. If you’ve ever received a Christmas bonus at a job where you felt you were underpaid, you can see that misrule is still with us. It’s the misrule bargain: accept your once-a-year bonus and do not grumble about your low pay for the balance of the year – a gift given in exchange for goodwill.

Misrule became domesticated in mid-19th century America: peasant and working-class folks were pushed aside as children became the season’s focus of charity and display of social inversion. Christmas celebrations would newly consist of private family gatherings inside homes; roving bands of young men pounding on doors and demanding the spoils of misrule disappeared. Gift giving – ah, the memory of St. Nick yet alive – was rediscovered and the church was most pleased to be part of a toned-down, family affair focused on another child, the babe of Mary. Not all churches in mid-19th century America held Christmas services. That began to change, however, and the societal move away from excesses so ingrained into the season by climate, culture, and practice was gaining momentum – until, that is, Sinterklaas took on American shape and form.

Sinterklaas, Dutch for St. Nicholas, became Americanized awfully fast. The Dutch version of St. Nicholas was transformed significantly to become the American Santa Claus: stripped bare of all religious symbolism and enhanced according to the traditional seasonal excesses. No mitre, but a cap; no shepherd’s staff, but a whip for his reindeer; no crosses, but gifts galore. The cleric red vestments were replaced by a snowsuit, covering an extensive paunch. As a matter of fact, depictions of Santa show his belly growing larger and larger as the mid-19th century gave way to the Gilded Age (1870-1900) and its proliferation of excess.

Santa-Claus-Pics-0415

Our modern Santa – with a little commercial backing.

 

James Farrell (One Nation Under Goods: Malls and the Seduction of American Shopping, Smithsonian, 2004) calls Santa the most appropriate icon for an affluent society. Santa made his first Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade appearance in 1924, and then became comfortably ensconced into malls when they came to prominence in post-WW II America. Malls in America: where else would Santa, the very embodiment of consumption’s blessings for the youngest members of our society, be more apropos? The united values of consumption and materialism are effectively reinforced in American malls. The domestication of misrule moves forward, as the bearded and bellied commercial icon par excellence looks into the eyes of a child and all but promises her that her material dreams will be fulfilled – with a similar misrule social bargain – as long as she behaves.

Ol’ Claus by Ferrell’s estimation is the national “symbol of material abundance and hedonistic pleasure.” Even so, the big old man has a religious aura – he’s supernatural and omniscient, somehow all-knowing of our activities, good and bad. In Santa’s kingdom, the nice receive pleasing gifts and the naughty get a second chance. And just like that, with a twinkle in his eye, he gives his divine like blessing upon our materialistic American Christmas. More Americans exchange gifts during the season than make traditional religious observance. What St. Santa represents – commerce, materialism, consumption – qualifies as the dominant religion of the land.

In my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good I argue that this dominant religion or ultimate concern (to use theologian Paul Tillich’s phrase) has for the most part been a good religion that has fed, clothed, sheltered, and employed millions – lifting many of these from the grips of economic poverty. But when this religion goes too far, and becomes an end in and of itself – the religion breaks bad and the societal common good suffers. Our unexamined proclivity to trust in economic growth as the healer of all our ills is misguided; economic growth has done its good work for American society, but we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. Further gains in income and wealth for affluent societies don’t give its citizens the improvements once seen in the societies’ earlier and less affluent days. Since 1980, economic gains in the United States, going mostly to the richest Americans, have unfortunately helped exacerbate social problems related to inequality: mental illness, teenage pregnancy, obesity, incarceration rates, and (decreasing) upward social mobility rates. Many of these problems directly and indirectly affect American children, one out of every four of them living in poverty, in the richest country in the history of the world.

It’s naturally based in history that the Northern Hemisphere’s season of winter solstice and accompanying holidays come with a touch of excess celebration, leisure, and the sharing and consumption of material goods. The grand majority of us look forward to and appreciate the December/January holiday season. It’s good to have a change of pace and break from that which the rest of the year consists: work and necessary routine.

Santa, the quintessential icon and patron saint for a highly consumerist society, tells us quite a bit about our own character and identity as a society (and what it is we teach our children). Does it all boil down to this: If we have enough stuff we’ll be alright?

 

 

This blog post and others on this website are representative of my views and writing in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, distributed nationally by ACTA Publications, and available at http://www.blueocotillo.com, Amazon, or any other bookselling venue.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

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Diabetes Through the Roof in the US and Developed World

For those of us concerned about socioeconomic trends and their consequences, Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth is one of the most important books we’ll see in 2016. This blog post is the second in a series that touches upon the issues the book covers: inequality, economic growth, and poverty, among others. Click here for the first post.

 

My book Just a Little Bit More chronicles the rise of excess and inequality in American society, generally since the Gilded Age (1870-1900) and specifically since the beginning of the 1980s. The sixth chapter, “Excess,” is the longest chapter in the book and covers an array of topics from political polarization and the domination of materialistic values in the marketplace to the oversized inefficiencies of the health care system and the pharmaceutical industry’s commitment to marketing over research and development. I also covered recent changes in the American diet.

When I was doing research on the American diet, I wanted to see hard numbers on the increase of type 2 diabetes since 1980.* Type 2 diabetes is mostly adult-onset, oftentimes related to poor diet and lack of exercise, attributable also to genetic predisposition. I was surprised, however, when I didn’t readily find numbers detailing the increase. Eventually, using data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, I was able to determine that the number of Americans with diabetes from 1980 to 2010 had increased by 275 percent. Gazoids. To say the least – an increase of 275 percent since 1980 is an astounding figure. We’ve heard about the childhood obesity epidemic for quite a while; the numbers for type 2 diabetes consequently could get worse in the future. But even so, there doesn’t seem to be that much of an outcry or societal alarm. I imagine the pharmaceutical companies don’t mind the quietness . . .

Change is in the air – perhaps. Earlier this month (April 2016) the World Health Organization released a report detailing a doubling of the prevalence of diabetes globally from 1980 to 2014 (an estimated 422 million people, 8.5 percent of adults worldwide today are diabetic, up from 4.7 percent in 1980). The “fast food” diet is a culprit in the increase, and so is plain ol’ excess.

Robert Gordon, the author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth, explains that caloric availability and consumption in the United States, steady from 1800 to 1980 at just below 3000 calories/day, is now on the rise. Whereas a healthy diet consists of 1900-3200 calories/day depending upon age and gender, daily caloric consumption and availability has risen since 1980 and now ranges from 3500-4000 calories/day (pgs. 63-4). We and others around the world are simply consuming more calories per person than previous generations. The worldwide rise in diabetes is not only affecting rich, developed nations but also middle- and lower-income nations like Polynesia and Micronesia. American Samoa, at 30 percent of its population, has the highest rate of adult diabetics in the world. The lowest rate of diabetes is found in northwest Europe at 5 percent. The United States has a rate of just under 10 percent.

This doesn’t mean that every person diagnosed with type 2 diabetes is an overeating slacker. Some are simply genetically predisposed more than others to contract diabetes. We also know that poverty is a culprit in the increase of diabetes. Less expensive foods (chips, cookies, crackers), laden with sugar and/or fat, are good at filling stomachs but substandard at providing necessary nutrition. A first-time reversal in human history beginning in the 1980s, the poor are obese and the rich are thin. In the United States (adult populations), 17 percent of Latinos, 16 percent of Native Americans, and 13 percent of African Americans are diabetic. The rate for whites is 7 percent.

Our various religious traditions teach that limits are a natural part of the created order. Since the Gilded Age, an influential part of American society has championed the idea that limits are unnecessary, because more is always better. The surge in diabetes over the past thirty years tells an important tale: our religious traditions, formed centuries ago, yet speak truth today. Some of our modern societal narratives – more is always better, as an example – are simply falsehoods.

 

*Type 1 diabetes, formerly called juvenile diabetes, is differentiated from type 2 diabetes, biologically and in terms of its causality. See this link from the American Diabetes Association for a detailed explanation on the difference.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que Bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

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The Proper Place of Excess

Thanksgiving, once again, is here and gone. I know I had too much to eat and drink. How about you?

Excess is a regular part of the natural order. Our bodies turn excess calories into fat cells – technically, stored energy for later use. Most excess weight, however, is simply lugged around serving unwittingly as a contributing factor to health problems. Alcohol, on the other hand, is eliminated by the body. But a morning-after dehydration headache, caused by excessive drinking, lets you know you overdid it. Long-term excessive drinking, of course, will kill you.

Excess has its consequences.

Excess, nevertheless, plays an important role in the survival process. You and I are here thanks to an excessive amount of spermatozoa, from which emerged one little victor to join forces with an ovum. Survival of the fittest and the fertilized! And not only that, some of the plants which provide food, oxygen, and beauty upon the earth produce seeds for their own reproduction numbering in excess of hundreds and thousands. As a Texas gardener, I plant basil for the summer and cilantro for the winter (for year-round pesto). For seven years running, I haven’t had to purchase seeds to keep my gardens growing. Their seed production is voluminous; I only have to figure out where I left the seeds collected from the previous season!

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Historically, Northern Hemisphere winter has been the season of rest and recuperation. During winter seasons ancestral, many of our forebears rejoiced in the gathered harvest, savored freshly slaughtered meat, and delighted in new beer and wine. Before hunkering down to wait out the winter, trusting their accumulated supplies to hold out – our Northern Hemisphere ancestors celebrated. The winter solstice, December 21, marking the rebirth of the sun, has traditionally been associated with feasts and festivals replete with excesses. Our own secular Christmastime holiday is a direct descendant of these revelries.

Roman Saturnalia and misrule, centered on feasting and gift-giving, also featured societal role reversals where servants and peasants became lords and ladies for a day or short season. The usually steady tables of fortune were turned, if only for a moment. During misrule (common in European societies and colonial America) individuals of low socioeconomic status demanded that their wealthier neighbors and patrons treat them – the servants and peons of society – as if they were the wealthy and deserving. Servants pounded on the doors of their superiors demanding fresh meat and fresh brew. For the most part, these and far more unsavory indulgences were tolerated during misrule. You might have heard or read about the Puritans of Massachusetts infamously outlawing Christmas in the late 1600s. It wasn’t the legendary anniversary of the Savior’s birth with which they had trouble, but the simultaneous misrule celebrations that exalted excesses, some acceptable and others decidedly distasteful.

Later, in the 1800s, misrule evolved into a new type of social inversion that has persisted to our own day, justly captured in the well-known Mel Tormé lyric: Christmas was made for children. In the mid-1800s, before compulsory schooling, children were understood to be miniature adults who occupied the bottom rung of social hierarchy along with peasants and servants. Modern secular Christmas – a family celebration – was created at this time with children becoming the focus of charity and goodwill. Misrule became domesticated, but its excesses were not lost in the transition.

Many of our familial antecedents received only oranges and hard candy for Christmas as children during the Depression (they were thankful for it, though – ask them while you still can and they’ll tell you).  As if DNA code, the excesses inherent to the original secular celebrations that shaped our modern Christmas – Saturnalia and misrule – survived the Depression and now thrive as never before. Today’s high and holy season of excess – starting with Black Friday Eve (it used to be called Thanksgiving) and continuing through New Year’s Day celebrations – is unmatched in terms of devotion to consumerism, materialism, consumption, waste, and over-indulgence.

As the wisdom teacher of Ecclesiastes says, there is a time for all things under the sun. Even excess. I enjoy the extended holiday, especially as my birthday falls during the season. It’s a good thing to celebrate the milestones of this life – on occasion – with a bit of excess. A case of really good wine, a lavish celebratory meal, an expensive trip with loved ones, extended vacation, tickets to a show – it’s your own misrule for a day or season.

It’s natural in the Northern Hemisphere to overdo it a bit at this time of the year. It’s been this way for millennia. But, as wisdom says, all good things in moderation. Whereas a season or moment of excess can have, on occasion, a proper place, we best be wary of its supposed charms.

too much

“How much is enough, Walt?” Breaking Bad, “Gliding Over All,” Season 5

Father Richard Rohr says: “Excess turns all gifts into curses.”

We live in a society where excess has become a way of life, a way of understanding the world, a way of being and interacting in the world. Excess, a cultural value revered and worshipped since the early 1980s in the US, invites extremism and undermines societal common good. How much is enough?

 

T. Carlos Anderson is the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014).

 

 

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Connecting the Dots Between Extreme Weather and Economic Growth

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Boundary Waters Trip – 2013

Three generations of my family have been to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), which lies north of Lake Superior and borders Canada within US National Forest territory. The BWCA consists of close to one million acres of lakes, streams, ponds, woods, and portage trails; inhabitants include moose, black bears, loons, eagles, walleye and northern pike. The BWCA’s surface area, incredibly, comprises 20 percent water. No motorboats, no roads, no cars, no cabins, no phones. Your canoe, paddles, map, and compass team up to transport you and your travel companions to and from campsite destinations; your tent, gear, and food – ensconced in backpacks – glide gracefully over the water. These necessities jangle weightily upon your back, however, when you portage them over land. No worries – your canoe comes equipped with shoulder rests. When you turn it upside down and carry it to the end of the portage trail you engage in a workout not replicable on any exercise machine at Gold’s Gym. It’s a great feeling when you throw down your canoe at the end of the trail and simultaneously feel the spray of water upon your legs and hear the boom of the canoe as it bottoms upon flat water.

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Boundary Waters Trip – 2006

My most recent trip to the BWCA, in 2013, was with a high school youth group from the church I serve in Austin, Texas. It was a great trip full of challenges and rewards. At the end of our trip, we came across a US Forest Service worker. Forest Service employees in the BWCA tend to myriad tasks, including trail maintenance. I asked him how long he had been working for the Forest Service – twenty-five years. I then asked him what were the biggest changes he’d seen in that time – extreme weather.

“The storms in the past years have become stronger and greater in intensity.”

Climate change. It’s happening everywhere. Travel writer Rick Steves sees its effects in Europe. Author Charles Fishman writes about the crippling droughts affecting Australia. Haboobs – an Arabic word we now know because of climate change, meaning intense dust storms – hover from the Middle East and North Africa to Arizona and Texas. Straight-line winds in excess of ninety miles an hour hit the BWCA in July 1999 felling an estimated 25 million trees; one person was killed and sixty were injured. Called a derecho (“straight” in Spanish), it was the largest northernmost storm of its type in recorded history to hit the North American continent.

Climate change is now an accepted reality, yet, people still bicker back and forth as to its cause – or whether it’s simply part of the climate variation that has always existed. Will the effects of historically excessive amounts of carbon dioxide (now at 400 parts per million) in the atmosphere doom the planet?

In Just a Little Bit More, I describe the culture of excess that has been prominent since 1980. Three tenets undergird the culture of excess: bigger and more is always better (from restaurant serving portions to silicone breast implants), economic growth is the panacea for all problems (politicians Republican and Democrat agree), and wealth is the highest societal value. (Is anyone ready for a new Rushmore of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mellon, and Trump?)

Extreme weather events – and accompanying manifestations, like wildfires – have ravaged the planet for a very long time. Yet, the intriguing connections between recent extreme weather and the current reign of the culture of excess beg investigative thought and reflection.

Economic growth, unequivocally, is the maker and driver of the world we call modern. Before the industrial era (when carbon dioxide levels were at 280 parts per million), poverty and life expectancy rates were – by today’s standards – dismal. The changes and capabilities wrought in the last 250 years simply astound. But how far and how long can economic growth continue as is?

In the bodily progression from childhood to adulthood, limitations eventually halt human physical growth. Human development – in wisdom and maturity – continue on (we trust) as an adult ages. Similarly, I argue that now is the time for greater emphasis on economic development – smart, efficient, and purposeful – as opposed to unabated economic growth.

With religious-type zeal, those who oppose limits on economic growth (see George Will’s recent article on Pope Francis) thunder as if to say whosoever shall stand in the way of the divine right to make as much money as possible be damned! Do not mess with the combination of the three tenets of the culture of excess! Yes, people need jobs – the main mode by which to physically survive on this modern planet. But we must steward the resources of the planet, responsibly and wisely, in the process of working, living, and surviving – together.

When you don’t get enough sleep, your body tells you via symptoms that you need more sleep. If these messages are ignored, breakdown is certain. The recent extreme weather events of heat, cold, floods, snow, drought, and wind could very well be symptoms of a planet that is being transformed by an elevated carbon footprint. As the phrase proclaims – life will go on. But whether or not human life is part of the planet’s future is an open question. Theologian Matthew Fox says that we are the only species on Earth that has the power to control our own destiny; but even so, we’ve yet to decide what to do – whether to live or to die.

The next time you wander out in the darkness – maybe on a canoe trip – and look up and see “the stars pinned on a shimmering curtain of light,” think about Matthew Fox’s statement.*

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

*Quotation from Bruce Cockburn, “Northern Lights,” Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws (1979, True North).

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The Dresser Drawers of Fast Fashion

Do you ever have trouble closing your dresser drawers because of too many clothes? Perhaps the excess serves to remind you to sort through your clothes and bag some of them for Goodwill or Salvation Army.

Filmmaker Andrew Morgan says Americans consume and discard significantly more clothing items than two decades ago. Who knew? His new documentary on the clothing industry, The True Cost, explains yet another aspect of American overconsumption and its negative consequences realized in places of production like China, Bangladesh, and India. Prices for many clothing items have been trending down for the last two decades in great part because of China’s entry into apparel production. According to an article in the New York Times, US clothing and apparel expenditure in 1987 accounted for 5.4 percent of all personal consumption spending. By 2009, that figure was down to 3.1 percent. Even so, we (and others in different parts of the world) have purchased more clothes, because the prices are so cheap!!I-have-too-much-stuff

This is a good thing, right? Global economic competition means people in the developed world get more choices of garments and shoes at better prices and people in the underdeveloped world are able to work. This is the process that raises people out of poverty. Yes – it’s been going on for close to 300 years . . .

But it has to be done in the right way.  Although laborers had been abused long before the advent of the industrial era, labor abuse achieved systemic perfection during the era. Conditions in sweatshops have been exposed by countless writers from Upton Sinclair (The Jungle, 1906) to Naomi Klein (No Logo, 1999). The unseemly similarities between the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan killing 146 mostly immigrant garment workers and the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh killing 1,129 garment workers and injuring over 2,500 are simultaneously tragic and shameful. We may have eliminated the drastic labor abuses in the American garment industry (and today only 3% of the clothes Americans purchase are manufactured in US factories, compared to 95% in 1960), but when we purchase and wear garments produced in questionable conditions overseas, we are complicit. Fierce global competition does lead to lower prices, but it also helps create abysmal working conditions for laborers.

Monsanto – the company that would slap a patent on Mother Nature if it could – sells its genetically modified (to guard against pests) and expensive cotton seeds to farmers in India. Most likely, you have some garments made from Indian cotton in your dresser drawers; India is the second largest producer and exporter of cotton in the world. Indian farmers currently (and historically) suffer from high rates of suicide. Monsanto (of course) denies that the high price of its seeds (manufactured in part with Indian companies) and associated farmer debt are linked to the recent rash of suicides. To be fair to Monsanto, there are other contributing factors to the suicides, such as alcoholism and personal domestic problems.

The Monsanto publicity department works hard on promoting an image of hard-driving multinational company stretching the bounds of science for the benefit of all humankind. But remember, Monsanto is the company that not only spies on, bullies, and sues its own customers, but it also owns the patent rights to “terminator gene” technology – the capability to make seeds sterile (and consequently force farmers to buy new seed every single planting season). They vow, however, not to use the technology . . . Right. Sounds kinda like Iran saying it won’t enrich uranium to weapons level grade. Which of the two do I trust less: Monsanto or Iran?

I have digressed – but it was purposeful digression. Remember the clothes we dropped off at Goodwill? Only ten percent of those items will end up on hangers inside the store for resale. The rest of it gets split into three areas: recycled rags and insulation, Sub-Saharan African resale markets, and landfills. The garment industry is the second most polluting in the world (behind the energy industry with its coal, oil, and gas), and globalization has made it possible to produce clothing at such low prices that many now consider clothing to be a disposable item – giving rise to the term fast fashion, akin to the term fast food.

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Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936)

Theologian Paul Tillich, decades ago, accurately described the modern age we live in:

Man is supposed to be the master of the world and of himself. But actually he has become a part of the reality that he has created, an object among objects, a thing among things, a cog within a universal machine in which he must adapt himself to in order not to be smashed by it. (From Theology of Culture, Oxford University Press, 1959, 7-8.)

Fast fashion looks to be as unhealthy as fast food. Slow down, search for quality, make it last, reuse or remake it when possible, recycle, and – oh yeah – buy fewer items.

 

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (only fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter.

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“Let’s All Make Lots of $$$”

The following is an excerpt from the book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, to be published May 1, 2014. This excerpt comes from chapter 6 – “Excess.”

The plane neared its destination; we looked out the window with excitement. Halfway expecting to see tumbleweeds and brown stretches of barren land, we saw green terrain and trees—lots of trees. My wife and I, both from the Land of Lincoln, were flying to Houston for my first interview at a church; it was 1990 and neither of us had been to Texas before. We were pleasantly surprised by what we saw out the plane window. The particular Texas stereotype that we brought with us, constructed of sagebrush and desert, was crushed by reality. Houston was lush and—as we would find out later—got its fair share of rain. Over the plane’s intercom, the friendly Continental Airlines flight attendant, complete with Texas twang, informed us of the local time and temperature. What we heard next, however, from our hospitable hostess shockingly showed us that not all our Texas stereotypes would be poleaxed: “Y’all have fun in Houston and hope y’all make lots of money!” My wife and I looked at each other with mouths agape, our faces betraying abject disbelief over what we had just heard. Did she really just say that? Our Upper-Midwest sensibilities took a direct hit; we wondered, what awaited us in this land of big profits and tall talk?

Truth be told, that jarring introduction to Texas more than twenty years ago didn’t scare us away. We love it in Texas—and for many reasons: the people, the mix of cultures and traditions, the food, the opportunities. Texas is unique historically; a big part of that history is commercial boldness. When we came to Houston in the early 1990s, low crude oil prices had made parts of the city go bust. Earlier, when the rest of the country suffered economically because of the Middle East oil embargo, Houston boomed. High oil prices were and are good for Houston; the romance of the energy business is reflected in its sprawling urban geography and lack of zoning laws. Houston, in the words of Enron chroniclers Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, was “wide open to opportunity and worshipful of money.”* Houston hasn’t changed. In 2011 Forbes named Houston the fastest growing millionaire city in America. The reason? It’s still oil and gas.

*Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, Penguin (2003), 1.

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, Blue Ocotillo Publishing (2014), 132. All rights reserved. Paperback edition available at http://www.blueocotillo.com.

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Inexhaustible Unlimitedness

I like listening to guest commentators David Brooks (The New York Times) and E. J. Dionne (The Washington Post) on Friday afternoons during their segment on NPR’s All Things Considered. I am usually in the car – the 5:00pm hour is when they grace the airwaves of Austin’s NPR affiliate, KUT – and if Denise (my betrothed) is in the car with me she knows that the seven minutes of exchange between the “conservative” and the “liberal” commands my attention. You can drive astutely while listening to the radio, but not while playing with your phone – an apt example as to the limitedness of our ability to multi-task.

David and E. J. don’t call each other names – it’s NPR, not Fox News – but they had a spirited discussion on the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling (April 2, 2014); the five-to-four decision abolishes the biennial limit of $123,200 that individuals can donate to federal candidates and national political party committees. Even though they disagreed on the ruling, both made valid points as to what it will mean for future elections. Brooks: The current situation is not good with “all the underground money, [and] all the candidates deciding that they have to go directly to the special interests to kiss up to them.” The decision points us in the “right direction.” Dionne: “The number of people who hit that limit that you described, all giving to congressional candidates, was 591. So this court has empowered a very tiny number of Americans to exercise even more power than they already have. It’s a terrible decision.”

While both make legitimate claims, Dionne is right (as he also states in the discussion) that the ruling follows in the path of the court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC. In today’s America, “free speech” is becoming costlier and costlier. Market values – all things bought and sold – infiltrate an arena (political democracy) that runs the risk of being captive to only the highest bidders.

Both rulings give further assent to the spirit of unlimitedness that has dominated American society since the late 1970s (what I call the short era of excess). The unlimitedness credo was articulated by George Gilder in his 1981 bestseller Wealth and Poverty: “The United States must overcome the materialistic fallacy: the illusion that resources and capital are essentially things, which can run out, rather than products of human will and imagination, which in freedom are inexhaustible.”* Gilder’s sense of stretching the boundaries—for positive gain—is admirable; dreaming, envisioning, and reaching for the stars makes the supposedly impossible attainable. But, not so fast – history is chock full of examples showing that the ignorance or disregard of limitations breeds corruption, social injustice, and economic chaos. Complex derivative securities and credit default swaps helped lead to the economic derailment of 2007-08. Yeeeaaahhh, the formulation and implementation of those financial products was a great and glorious moment for the unlimitedness of human will and imagination.

Because we worship unlimitedness in matters financial and economic, we now somehow think that fewer boundaries in the political realm is the better way forward. Forgive my limited will and imagination, and redundancy: Yeeeaaahhh.

 

* George Gilder, Wealth and Poverty: A New Edition for the 21st Century, Regnery Publishing (2012), p. 315.

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Just a Little Bit More book – Foreword

Peter L. Steinke, author of Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach has written the foreword for Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good.

 

Writing on behalf of the common good, the author asks how the American economy can benefit all, not a few. As currently structured, it can’t. T. Carlos Anderson argues for an egalitarian approach to fiscal matters.

Deftly, he sets the historical scene of how the economy took the form of religion. Money is the new god, actually, the old god in new design. For a god is that in which you put your trust. By tracing the development of the economy from the land of opportunity to the summum bonum, the reader gets a perspective as to why we are in the present quagmire.

The new religion comes with priests and bishops known as bankers and investors. The free market evangelists boast of the invisible hand that guides the system. There are even rogue angels like Bernie Madoff and other Ponzi schemers. With money as god, financial worth determines worthiness. Money is no longer “the root of all evil” but the essence of the good life. Excess is the sign of cosmic blessing.

Years ago, psychologist Erich Fromm noted that “greed is a bottomless pit,” an apt image for hell. Greed “exhausts the person in an endless attempt to satisfy need,” but Fromm contends that the need is insatiable, leading to addictive behavior and the selling of one’s soul.

Anderson knows that money talks, but it is a one way conversant. He wants economic democracy to be the new standard to define a system that has lost a sense of proportion.

The reader will benefit immensely in seeing how we have shaped the system we are part of and what can lead to a new way of doing economics that embraces the common good.

 

From the foreword of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, Blue Ocotillo Publishing (2014). All rights reserved. Paperback edition available May 1 from this website.

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The Culture of Excess

I want to tell you a story, captivating yet tragic, about a god that has been around for a long time. This deity has staked its claim, oftentimes successfully, in human hearts; through the ages its spirit has been manifested variously in peoples and their events from the Dutch tulip panic to the 2007-2008 financial crisis emanating from the US housing market. This god is not new; its inhabited forms and shapes, however, always seem to give the impression of novelty. Its liturgies and incantations allure, its high priests (mostly all male) impress, and burgeoning converts hold fast in the way. For the last one hundred years – what I call the long era – the new way of this god has promoted excess to the detriment of the common good. Specifically, for the last thirty-five years – the short era – a fundamentalist belief in the powers and ways of the market has pushed excess to new extremes. Excess is not solely the propriety of Wall Street; excess has filtered its way into numerous significant areas of American life.

Excerpt from T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson’s Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, Blue Ocotillo Publishing, May 2014. All rights reserved.

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